Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sexscapes from Amsterdam

It is red red red in Amsterdam
On November 18, the venerable National Gallery will unveil its first contemporary art installation in 185 years of existence. This momentous installation will be "The Hoerengracht" or the Whore's Canal: a life-size recreation of Amsterdam's red light district by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Ed is dead, but Nancy is still living, making her the first living artist to see her work exhibited at the National Gallery. Having lived six summer months in Amsterdam, I can't wait to view it.

All tourists to Amsterdam religiously take a tour of its notorious red light district. And are dutifully awed by it. No matter how much you have read about it, how world weary you are, how primed you are for the experience: the reality of Amsterdam's canal-lined sex lanes will leave you overwhelmed. It is the shopping arcade of prostitution. Women of all ages, colours, sizes and catering to all kinds of festishes are casually displayed in windows like candies for your pick. Nothing is left to the imagination including the price of the experience: 50 euros for a mere hump, another 5 for moaning, another 10 for a caress, another 15 for her to kiss back, more for some oral... you get the picture. It is in-your-face, unashamed, unsentimental and utterly commercial. And it will leave you awed. I was awed.

But what is more amazing - and something you learn only if you live in Amsterdam - is how quickly, how unbelievably fast, you stop noticing the sex romp around you. It hit me two months into the city, as I was pedaling my way to the university early one morning. As I glanced around, I noticed a bored sex worker in dominatrix attire sitting in front of her window, perhaps waiting for a customer to walk in for a early morning quickie. Her window was in the basement of what looked like a respectable residential block, and was sandwiched between a bakery and a dress shop. The bakery had just opened and the smell of warm freshly baked bread was in the air. The dress shop had an hour to go before it opened. There was little excitement or sense of the forbidden anywhere - it was just another banal morning in Amsterdam with a sex worker, a baker and a university student (me) going about their lives in an everyday city street. And to me, it was priceless.

I wonder, if Kienholzes manage to capture the banality of Amsterdam's sexscapes!

BBC reports on Hoerengracht.

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